The ability to stretch a US dollar is one of the reasons that so many Americans retire to Mexico every year, and also one of the reasons that there are well over a half a million American illegal immigrants living here now. With a retirement income of two thousand US dollars per month, expat retirees can live very well here, far better than the lifestyle they could afford in the states.
Perhaps because of how far a US dollar can go here, it’s sometimes difficult for our friends back in the states to understand the high cost of living for ordinary Mexican families here in Mexico. I found this to be the case when I lived in Jamaica too. Simply converting the price of an item from one currency to another doesn’t help them “get it”.
If you compare dollars to dollars, most essentials are cheaper in Mexico than in the states, but thinking of cost as a percentage of income is a better comparison. For example, where I live in Mexico a dozen eggs costs 30 pesos ($1.70US). Back in Raleigh, a dozen eggs is about $2.70, so by comparison in absolute dollars, eggs are much cheaper in Mexico. But if I say a dozen eggs costs 10% of the daily wage, people get a better sense of how expensive things really are. Even at US minimum wage, that’s about seven bucks a dozen.
With a little creativity, we can still have great meals on a small budget. We love Mexican food. And American food. And Italian food. When we lived in the states, on Friday nights we would often order takeout from a little trattoria in Raleigh Stromboli’s. Fresh, delicious, and budget friendly to a US income.
Now we live in Santiago de Querétaro, a beautiful historic city and wealthy metropolis of commerce and industry in central Mexico. Expatriate executives, the wealthy business community, and tourists provide a solid customer base for the many upscale restaurants here, but a meal for two in a really nice Italian restaurant costs about a week’s pay for the majority of citizens. A Friday night out for a normal Mexican family is more likely to be alambre and tacos.
If you want to make alambre at home, Leslie Limón has an awesome smoked pork and pineapple recipe on her site. If you need to substitute to stay in budget, do it. Don’t be afraid to try new recipes and make them your own.
Even though Italian dishes are not classic Southern comfort food, my nieces would argue that fettuccine alfredo from La Casetta Italian Restaurant in Bethel is their mac & cheese. Comfort food is about family and memories and comfort. So, I do what any Italian food lover would do – I make my own. Roma tomatoes and dried pastas are plentiful, so I make spaghetti fairly often and frequently use chorizo (Mexican fresh sausage) instead of ground beef in the sauce. We’ve made pizza a few times too.
Imported cheeses like cheddar, Swiss, Romano and parmesan are pricey, but we love Mexican cheeses and they fit our budget. Dairy products take a bit of trial and error to find the right substitutes for each dish, but we are usually happy with the results. One pasta dish that we love is penne in a thick creamy, cheesy sauce. Regardless of your budget, this recipe tastes delicious with any of the substitutions or additions.
I don’t cook from recipes usually, so the amounts listed below should be adjusted to your own taste. We love a lot of garlic, but if you want to use less garlic, do that. If you prefer spinach, use it. It works beautifully but takes twice as much. You can add green peas or mushrooms if you like. You can substitute thighs for the breasts and oil or manteca (lard) for the butter if that works better for your budget.
If your budget allows you to have real parmesan for this dish, great. If not, you can use commercially prepared grated parmesan or grated cotija cheese, not the fresh which is sort of like feta, but the dry, aged cotija. You can use premium crema and just one tablespoon of cream cheese, or go up another level to full heavy cream. It’s all about making the most flavorful dish you can, suited to your tastes, within your budget.
2 medium-sized chicken breasts
2 cups acelgas, cleaned and chopped (Swiss chard, approx 10 stalks)
1 medium white or sweet onion, diced
5 large garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons flour
1 can media crema (225g)
4 oz Philadelphia cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup to 1 cup grated parmesan cheese, to your taste
1 cup whole milk, warmed
1 cubito caldo de pollo in ½ cup hot water (chicken bouillon)
Salt and pepper to taste
A sprinkle of nutmeg if you like
8 oz dry penne pasta (250g)
Instructions: First rule. Do it your way. Adjust, adapt, make it yours.
- Cut the chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until golden brown. You could also roast, poach, or grill the chicken if you prefer. Your choice. Set the prepared chicken aside.
- Sautéthe acelgas until tender, about 5-7 minutes, and set aside.
- Put the water to boil at this point so that your pasta will be done just as the sauce comes together.
- Sautéthe onions in the skillet over medium heat, until they are translucent, 2-3 minutes.
- Add the minced garlic and continue cooking until the onions are slightly browned, and set aside.
- The water should be boiling by now, so add the pasta and salt, and stir for 30 seconds. Do not add oil.
While the pasta is cooking, let’s prep the sauce.
- Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat. We don’t want it to boil and separate.
- Add the flour, and whisk continuously over medium-low heat until the roux is slightly golden.
- Gradually add the warm milk and hot caldo, then the crema and cream cheese, whisking continuously.
- If you have trouble getting the sauce silky smooth, you can run it through the blender for about 30 seconds and then add it back to the pan – if your blender can handle hot.
- Once your sauce has thickened a bit, add the parmesan cheese and pepper.
- Blend thoroughly, then add the veggies and chicken.
- Drain the pasta, reserving the water.
- Add pasta to sauce.
- Taste for saltiness at this point. You may not need any salt because the pasta water is salted, and both caldo and parmesan can be salty.
- If your sauce seems too thick, add a little of the reserved pasta water. Yummy with a mixed green salad and fruit.
Like what you see? Check out more from Geneva at Southern Comfort Food Mexican Style!